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What you need to know about DRM and Piracy #BuildingStories

Published on

6/5/2015 1:11:06 PM

In which we give you a crash course in DRM and Piracy

So first of all, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and it’s basically any method that’s implemented to control how you use a digital file – such as locking it to a particular device, limiting how many times it can be downloaded and dictating if it can be shared in any way.

When we talk about DRM we’re really talking about its relationship with piracy, because that’s the given justification for implementing it. When DRM is applied it theoretically becomes harder for free copies to be shared and downloaded online. But obviously DRM means different things for different people. For publishers, it’s this weapon against piracy. For readers, it’s a digital lock restricting what you can do with something you’ve purchased. And for writers, depending on what camp you fall in, it’s either how you defend your intellectual property, or it’s an inconvenience for the people supporting you.

The problem is, there’s a significant lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of DRM. I mean even when I was planning this video, I searched for online content about this subject, but instead I was just given hundreds if not thousands of tutorials telling me how to remove DRM in a matter of minutes. So it gets hard to support this methodology when its purpose is to add a layer of protection to a piece of work, and yet it seems anyone with a search engine can find out how to strip that protection away. It makes you wonder if it’s really worth inconveniencing your paying customers, and treating them like they’re potential criminals, over some lock that can be unpicked in a matter of minutes. And it only needs to be unpicked once for there to then be an open, easy-to-share version of your book uploaded to piracy sites.

With a system like this, the paying customer suffers. Like if they ever shift to a new device, a new ebook store, a new reading app, or when they upgrade their phone every two years, they’re going to realise they can’t copy over any of the DRM-enabled books they’ve bought. And it’s not even like this hasn’t already caused problems; there have already been occasions where ebooks have been lost or purposefully removed from a customer’s device.

Some publishers are of course completely aware of the flaws in this system, and that’s why, in 2012, the science fiction publisher TOR made the decision to remove DRM from all of their titles – a move that was praised by readers and writers alike. More recently, the publisher 2000AD did the same thing. Taking it even further, the publisher SelfMadeHero partnered with the file-sharing site BitTorrent to sell their books. And this anti-DRM attitude exists in other industries too. The website has had huge success, largely part to its no-DRM promise on every game it sells.

So what about other industries? How have they handled DRM? Do they have the same issue? Do they implement the same solution? What do they think causes piracy?

When we think about pirates and we think about illegal downloads and torrents existing online, there’s usually some argument centred around the idea that people download things illegally because they’re reluctant to pay for a product. And that may be true for some people, but Gabe Newell, the CEO of the largest platform for PC gaming and distribution, has said,

"there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem."

"The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It's by giving those people a service that's better than what they're receiving from the pirates."

And this is vital, because not only does DRM fail to solve the problem of piracy, it also greatly decreases the quality of the customer experience.

And the payment argument also doesn’t really hold much ground when you look at the success of companies like Steam, Spotify and Netflix, or any digital-content supplier people are happy to chuck their money at in exchange for a quality service. In 2013, the Netflix CEO said that, three years after launching in Canada, piracy rates had dropped by 50%, and he cited how easy Netflix is to use as the main factor behind this shift.

(An interesting sidenote for authors, publishers, or anyone looking for ways to find an audience: the Netflix CEO also famously stated that he studied torrent sites as a way of researching what content was being downloaded the most, which of course gave him two valuable pieces of data: first, what are people passionate about? And second: what isn’t being provided to people easily enough?)

And this idea of service being the problem is supported by the success of Spotify, who obviously have a free and paid-for system, but even so, have found since launching that 55% of 18-29 year olds will pirate less when offered a free, legal alternative. So even if both options are free, they will opt for the professional service over pirating files.

Another example of people willing to give money for a convenient and honest system: the comedian Louis C.K. conducted an experiment in 2011 wherein he built a system that let you download his latest comedy special (produced independently) for $5. He opted to make this file DRM-free, hoping that by foregoing the traditional DRM-enabled channels and making the process more of a connection between the artist and the customer, he would deter piracy and increase sales. He says he was warned by people that removing DRM would make it too easy to pirate, and people would simply torrent it rather than spend any money. Despite that warning, it went pretty well for him. He made $1 million in 12 days.

The games industry has dealt with this issue for so long they’ve had time to get creative with battling pirates. The developers behind the Batman video games came up with a unique way to punish anyone with a pirated copy of the game. Rather than simply preventing the game from loading, they decided let the game play as normal, but then, at a certain point, Batman’s cape would stop working. So suddenly a key element of the game – that of using the cape to traverse areas not accessible without it – is taken away from the player, and they’re just simply…stuck.

Back to the book world, and in a complete (albeit perhaps implicit) rebuttal against DRM, some authors actually believe piracy can be helpful. In 2012 Paulo Coehlo teamed up with The Pirate Bay and called on the world to pirate everything he’d ever written. He reasoned that torrenting was great for increasing awareness of his books, comparing it to a radio station playing the same song over and over until people eventually buy the album. He simply believed the more a book is pirated, the better it will sell. Neil Gaiman had a similar reaction to piracy, coming to the conclusion that it’s just another form of advertising. And the team behind Angry Birds said they see piracy – even in the form of Angry Birds merchandise being sold without a license or permission – as a positive thing, because it extends what they see as the community of fans around the game.

So why are we still having to deal with DRM with modern purchases? To be honest it does seem like publishing doesn’t have as much of an issue with piracy compared to other industries. So maybe there’s this false equivalency, where we’ve adopted DRM because clearly something was working if piracy wasn’t as detrimental to books as it had been for, say, the music industry. But I feel like, if anything, the harmlessness of the issues comes from companies like Amazon and Apple and Google doing exactly what Gabe Newell said we should: that is, providing the best service possible to customers. I mean these companies have made it so the act of buying an ebook is as easy as tapping a button on your reader, so you’re not going to have much of a reason to seek out pirated editions elsewhere. And I find it interesting that there’s this history of publishers butting heads with Amazon, yet for all their differences, the publishing industry is probably lucky that they’re making it so easy to read and buy ebooks, because that may be a big reason why piracy hasn’t affected the book world as much as it did other industries (but of course this has naturally resulted in companies like Amazon having a huge share of the ebook market).

For the most part, it seems like laziness that generates such a poor implementation of DRM. The website digitalpublishing101 has argued that,

"DRM can be implemented in a way that makes it simple for the user. A good example of this is Amazon's system, which is so well integrated into the user's overall experience that most users are probably unaware of it."

Like Amazon, Gabe Newell’s platform, Steam, has DRM integrated into its library and store, but again it isn’t something that crops up in your day-to-day gaming experience. Sure, this is probably because the vast majority of your PC gaming will take place around Steam, so you wouldn’t necessarily encounter issues trying to play games across different platforms. However, the current competition in the tablet and e-reader market suggests that for the book world this situation is going to get a lot worse, because in a world of DRM the ebooks you buy on one device won’t be readable on another.

So far, understandably, the publishers that have been more proactive in tackling this issue are the ones who (if we’re going to speak in generalisations) will have a more tech-savvy audience, and so naturally will be aware and adverse to the role of DRM, and also presumably more able to strip that technology from their books. But it seems inevitable that the general reader, one that may not have any idea that DRM even exists, will eventually find out about it the hard way – for example, when they move on to a new device, or have their entire library wiped by the provider, which is what happened to one person with all the books they purchased from Amazon.

Now we’re not supporting piracy or illegal file-sharing or anything like that; we’re just arguing against DRM as an effective response. It’s obviously not a great situation to be in when you have to just accept some people will do everything in their power to steal something you worked hard, but until a better method is invented, then foregoing the use of DRM and focusing on giving users the best service possible seems to be the best approach to take. The author and journalist Cory Doctorow explained this situation best when he said,

"Back when ebook sales began to kick off, most major publishers were still DRM believers — or at least, not overly skeptical of the claims of DRM vendors. They viewed the use of DRM as "better than nothing"."

Which seems to be the residing problem here. There’s this fear of tampering with something that’s been ingrained in the publishing process since the conception of ebooks. It’s a psychological crutch that makes them feel like they're doing something. Even now, despite the fact the evidence weighs heavily against DRM as an effective tool, and reputable publishers are foregoing it completely, it still presides. Maybe publishers want to take their time and track the progress of non-DRM publishing, before they strip it from every one of their titles. It’s understandable for them to be cautious about opening up all of their files, but ultimately if you willingly subscribe to a system that decreases the quality of service your paying customers receive, you void your right to complain when they choose a different, better service.

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Additional thoughts

Nobody will steal your product (as long as you’re the best provider of it)

When it became possible to torrent something, it wasn’t specifically the allure of 'free stuff' that cost companies so many potential sales, it was the allure of a better means to acquire what they want.

Netflix reportedly tracked the most popular downloads on torrentsites when looking at what shows to acquire. Quoting from this article in the Telegraph [hyperlink:], CEO Reed Hastings said:

“Netflix is so much easier than torrenting. You don’t have to deal with files, you don’t have to download them and move them around. You just click and watch," he said, according to TorrentFreak.

Indeed three years after Netflix launched in Canada there is evidence that traffic to BitTorrent has halved, according to Hastings.

The fact that you can still illegally download anything and everything doesn't seem to have stopped people chucking their money at Scribd, Oyster, Netflix, Hulu, Steam, Amazon Instant, Spotify, Audible.

The service you got when you torrented a product was better than the service you got from buying something. But when industries got wind of this, their reaction was to cut out the thing providing a better service rather than improve their own.

Illegal downloads will not necessarily be the downfall of an industry, but a refusal to see why customers choose other options over theirs most certainly will.

Further reading

Readership will use Minecraft to promote its books

What is DRM (digital rights management)?

SelfMadeHero partners with BitTorrent Bundle

Publisher 2000AD removes all DRM

“In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem.” - Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve

“The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work,” Newell said. “It's by giving those people a service that's better than what they're receiving from the pirates.” - Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve

Paulo Coelho calls on readers to pirate books

Is Piracy the New Advertising?

Neil Gaiman on Copyright Piracy and the Web

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebook Piracy

Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers and publishers

Removing Roadblocks to Community: Tom Doherty on DRM at Book Expo of America

Sony Debuts New DRM for Publishers

(Sony recently unveiled their own take on DRM technology, which is worth looking into, though it’ll have to provide something special to both manage the digital content – presumably in a way that limits any potentially-nefarious file-sharing – while also giving you a service and a file that’s as convenient as one without DRM.)

Netflix Canada: Piracy Down 50 Per Cent Since Service's Launch

Spotify’s Impact On Piracy

Spotify and Netflix curb music and film piracy

Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle

What Louis C.K. Knows That Most Media Companies Don't

Deliberate Glitch Foils Arkham PC Pirates

International Day Against DRM